File picture - A demonstrator protests against the passing of the Protection of State Information Bill outside Parliament in Cape Town.

The National Assembly’s passing of the Protection of State Information Bill in November set a bad example for the whole southern African region, says the Media Institute for Southern Africa watchdog body.

In its annual report on the state of media freedom, “So This is Democracy?”, it said regional governments, including those deemed to be progressive – like SA – were “increasingly becoming secretive, hindering access to information and expressing more (than) a fervent desire to exercise political oversight of the media”.

The information bill must still be passed by the National Council of Provinces before it can become law.

The Media Institute’s specialist in media freedom monitoring and research, Levi Kabwato, said the passage of the information bill through the National Assembly, coming against the backdrop of the ANC’s proposal to institute a media appeals tribunal, had sent a strong message to the region.

Threats and harassment of media workers in SA were particularly damaging, and resonated far beyond SA because it was a leading economic and political force in the region.

“The concern, therefore, is that what happens in SA is easily a justification for similar policies and actions in other countries in the region and elsewhere.

“Hence, with a policy conference coming in 2012, followed by an elective conference in the same year, how the ANC defends its media appeals tribunal proposal, and how it responds to the public’s criticism of the information bill, will be of key interest.”

Kabwato said it was accepted in the region that democracy and development went hand in hand, so threats to democracy were threats to the region’s development.

While most countries in the region had made successful transitions from single to multiparty systems of government, they remained fragile democracies because of the persistence of patronage politics.

Democracies’ fragility was also the result of “severe weaknesses within other democratic institutions such as the judiciary, legislative assemblies, opposition political parties, civil society organisations and the media, whether state-owned, public or private”.

“Such weaknesses have, for instance, allowed some governments to disrespect the rule of law with reckless abandon.

“Consequently, the work of the media in countries that do this has been profoundly affected, as evidenced by, among other tactics, arbitrary arrests, detentions without trial and the instigation of lawsuits that have the clear objective of bankrupting targeted media organisations and have them focus their energies elsewhere outside their core business,” Kabwato said.

He added it did not help that certain judiciaries and legislatures in the region appeared to support repressive regimes in targeting the media. - The Star